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Chip advances open new design services door

Posted: 16 Dec 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cmos? tsmc? chip architecture? design service? current source?

All the buzz about Bangalore has bred a stereotype about design services companies: that they are offshore, inexpensive and generally useful for doing the routine work on middle-of-the-road map designs. But as Mitsubishi Electric Corp.'s recent selection of little-known services vendor Alchip Technologies indicates, the growing difficulty of chip architectures and process technologies is opening new levels in the design services business.

Though its announcement lacked many details, Mitsubishi said that Alchip, headquartered in Taipei, Taiwan, will be responsible for the physical design and manufacturing of an 800MHz, 15Mgate networking chip planned for fabrication in 130nm CMOS by TSMC. Behind that bare outline lies an interesting business modeland a hint at how embattled design teams are coping with the realities of modern design.

Alchip was founded in 2002 by a team of 10 soc designers who departed Simplex Solutions Inc. after that company's acquisition by Cadence Design Systems Inc. "We wanted a design services company that could work not on the mundane projects but on the most challenging designsthe leading-edge architectures and advanced processes that tend to get design teams in trouble," said Kinying Kwan, chairman, president and CEO of Alchip.

"That is what we had been doing together since we began working with advanced processes at Tandem Computer many years ago," Kwan said. "We had developed ways of assessing the level of maturity of a process and the amount of in-house tool support it would require to achieve first-time adequate yields. The way the industry was moving, we felt there would be a market for those skills.

"At the time, we made a careful assessment of fixed costs. We determined that about half our cost would be direct labor and half would be tool, hardware and other overhead. That pointed to the cost of recruiting excellent people as a major factor. And that, in turn, led us to locate in Shanghai. Here, we can recruit from the top 1 percent of graduates and train them in our methodology without having to untrain them from bad habits."

In addition to its Taipei headquarters and Shanghai office, Alchip has locations in California, United States; Shin-Yokohama, Japan; Hsin-Chu, Taiwan; and Hong Kong.

Kwan said that new hires get about six to nine months' instruction in "SoC fundamentals." But it's not likely to be similar to what they got in school. "Our methodology is pretty unique," Kwan said.

The fully hierarchical flow relies heavily on correct-by-construction techniques to avoid lengthy extraction, analysis and repair spins downstream. Everything, Kwan said, depends on the first step: working with the client to achieve a clean partitioning with an exact identity of logical, physical and electrical boundaries between blocks in the hierarchy.

Once the partitioning is set, the design moves up the hierarchy, using the same blend of third-party and internal tools to make sure that timing and signal-integrity results match across levels of the hierarchy. Construction techniquese.g. use of placement rules and decoupling cells for noise managementminimize surprises as blocks are analyzed and combined and as the results are reanalyzed.

In some cases, the internally developed tools are vital, Kwan admitted. "We have, for some time, been using current-source models for timing instead of the static lookup table models," he said. "We have also been dealing with process variations; they are becoming a bigger and bigger issue in our designs. In some cases, we have had to make substantial modifications to foundry libraries."

Uncommon knowledge

So far, Alchip has one 90nm design under its belt. "Power management was, of course, an issue," Kwan said. "We used both high- and low-threshold devices in the design. We developed an internal methodology for identifying nets with positive timing slack that could afford the substitution of high-threshold cells, and used that to reduce overall leakage."

As Alchip has engaged with clients, it has been asked to fill voids beyond just advanced physical design methodology, Kwan said.

Far from the commodity knowledge image that design services may have developed, vendors like Alchip fill a different need: making up the difference between the skills of hard-pressed design teams and the capabilities of mature tools, on the one hand, and the demands of advanced 130nm and 90nm design on the other. It could be a way out for overtaxed design teams that feel themselves herded toward a box canyon.

- Ron Wilson

EE Times

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